Now, every frequent flyer story should begin…
Steve Belkin was in trouble with the law. It was 2001, and agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration wanted to know why he’d hired 20 Thai farmers to fly four times a day, every day, for six weeks straight between the cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, only 80 miles apart in the infamous Golden Triangle, a hotbed for heroin smuggling. Sufficiently scared, Belkin showed them his spreadsheet—it was all part of a plan, he explained, to earn five million frequent-flier miles. For only $8 per round trip, his employees were racking up miles he then processed legally through Air Canada, a fellow Star Alliance carrier that recognized his staff as “super elites,” earning fistfuls of free business-class tickets to take them anywhere in the world.
I need to ask Steve about this, because I think he’s conflating two different stories here.
I seem to recall that the Aeroplan strategy was back around 2003, having New Zealand college students fly to Europe to earn Aeroplan super Elite, which allowed those members to book Air Canada flights without capacity controls. Employer sof those students could then use their miles to book business class tickets on any Air Canada aircraft, and it was less expensive to employee the college students and pay for their flights than it was to buy business class directly.
Meanwhile, the Thai rice farmer strategy was in 2001 as noted, to fly short, cheap segments and have those employees earn United 1K status via 100 flights, which then earned them 6 systemwide international upgrades (back then valid on any paid fare).
Of course, those weren’t all of Steve’s exploits, in a 2000 USA Today piece I can no longer find online, they explained:
Belkin earned a whopping 10.5 million miles in a 1999 United Airlines promotion that awarded 25,000 bonus miles (enough for a free domestic round-trip ticket) for flying first-class between any of 13 cities. Most were faraway, exotic locales. But Belkin paired up relatively inexpensive hops, mostly between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, raised $750,000 in financing, bought 1,600 tickets at about $425 each and recruited 40 acquaintances to take the flights (for a $50 per flight fee, plus drinks) for the two-month duration of the promotion.
But it’s not just miles, elite status matters too.
Once you’re there, the perks pour in: upgrades, bonuses, lounges and reciprocal benefits on partner airlines. “Walking back to coach, people always comment on first class,” FlyerTalk’s former president Gary Leff, now working with Randy Petersen, tweeted recently. “They’d love the seat but can’t imagine who would pay [so much]. Me either.”
“Elite status matters,” Leff told me. “It matters more now than it ever did, with flights flying full. Being at the top of the wait-list queue matters. Waived checked baggage fees matter—even priority boarding matters, just so you can find overhead bin space.”
On the best frequent flyer programs, my advice gets a little bit too condensed, as is the nature of any article, so I’ll expand in a moment.
So what’s the best frequent-flier program? The maddening answer: It depends. Former FlyerTalk president Gary Leff gives high marks to the Air Canada–affiliated Aeroplan for having the lowest threshold of any airline for midtier elite status, which includes lounge access and reciprocal benefits on other Star Alliance carriers. If it’s free flights you’re after, Alaska Airlines has frequent codeshares with both American Airlines and Delta, meaning miles flown on either can be redeemed on British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Qantas, among others. Among the big three, Delta’s SkyMiles program has been derisively nicknamed SkyPesos by FlyerTalkers for its poor redemption rates, while United is infamous for blocking reward tickets on partners such as Lufthansa and ANA.
Still mostly good advice, but of course Air Canada doesn’t have the lowest elite qualifying threshold (you can earn Star Gold status with Aegean after 20,000 status miles, and Turkish has a great qualification scheme). And unfortunately a new rule at Aeroplan requires you to actually fly some of your flights on Air Canada in order to earn status with them. They’re eliminating 500 mile flight minimums and gutting their award chart July 15, making the program far less attractive than it was.
Oh, and Skymiles didn’t just get nicknamed Skypesos by Flyertalkers, but rather than term originated with me. Heh. I do recommend crediting Delta flights to Alaska Airlines, though, if you aren’t otherwise earning Delta elite status, and if you’re an infrequent Delta and American flyer (e.g. you fly primarily Star Alliance) Alaska is a great place to put miles from both airlines in order to rack up points towards an award more quickly.
Best elite programs? I’d give the top tier nod to Untied and to American, and for lower tiers I’d say US Airways elites across the spectrum have good chances for upgrades and United’s lower tier elites at least get economy plus.
Overall, Greg Lindsay offers a great piece.